Friday, July 24, 2009

Big Ten Football Previews – Part V

Editor's Note: This is the fifth in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Check back often to see who’s next...

Team: Wisconsin Badgers

Tidbits … Coach Bret Bielema went 17-1 in his first 19 games. Since then he is 11-10. Last season marked the Badgers' seventh straight with a bowl bid, but brought about the least wins since 2003.

Past Predictions/Results:
2008 Prediction / actual: 8-4, 5-3 (T-2nd), Alamo / 7-6, 3-5 (T-6th), Champs
2007 Prediction / actual: 11-1, 7-1 (T-1st), Rose / 9-4, 5-3 (4th), Outback
2006 Prediction / actual: 8-4, 4-4 (T-6th), Alamo / 12-1, 7-1 (T-2nd), Capital One
2005 Prediction / actual: 8-4, 4-4 (T-5th), Alamo / 10-3, 5-3 (T-3rd), Capital One
2004 Prediction / actual: 7-4, 4-4 (T-5th), Alamo / 9-3, 6-2 (3rd), Outback
2003 Prediction / actual: 10-2, 6-2 (T-2nd) / 7-6, 4-4 (T-7th)
2002 Prediction / actual: 8-5, 4-4 (T-6th) / 8-6, 2-6 (T-8th)
2001 Prediction / actual: 8-4, 5-3 (4th) / 5-7, 3-5 (T-8th)

*Note, bowl shown only from 2004 on as I did not predict the bowl berths prior to that season.

Returning Starters: 6 offense, 5 defense, 2 kickers

Key Returnees: RB John Clay, TE Garrett Graham, C John Moffitt, SS Jay Valai, CB Aaron Henry

Key Losses: RB P.J. Hill, TE Travis Beckum, OL Kraig Urbik, DE Matt Shaughnessy, LB Jonathan Casillas

Looking Back ... Wisconsin started hot in 2008, blew a big lead at Michigan and then suffered four staright set backs before closing out the regular season with four wins in five games. It was not a pretty year for the Badgers. Penalties, injuries and inconsistent play from the quarterback position really put a damper on what looked to be a promising campaign. Aside from giving the game away in Ann Arbor, the loss at Michigan State was particularly disturbing, given that the Badgers dominated everywhere but the scoreboard. The murmurs and mumbling is starting, can Bret Bielema do the job that Barry Alvarez did?

Outlook - Offense ... There is one question mark on the offensive side of the ball - quarterback. Can Dustin Sherer gain the consistency needed to command his offense and lead Wisconsin to victories? He certainly has support. The offensive line is always solid for the Badgers. John Clay and Zach Brown are proven entities at tailback. Garrett Graham will quickly help UW fans forget about Beckum. The wide receiving corps is rock solid, if a little injury prone. The pieces and parts are there, but there needs to be a maestro. Can Sherer conduct the Wisconsin offense with the efficiency and power needed to turn tough losses into big wins? I'm not 100% sold.

Outlook - Defense ... The fact that Wisconsin is not long on experience when it comes to the defensive front seven puts even more pressure on Sherer and the offense. There is plenty of depth and some nice talent on the defensive line, and transfer J.J. Watt could really burst onto the scene. The problem is, the linebacking corps is paper thin. Jaevery McFadden is a very good linebacker and the starters that flank him are decent, but the depth chart is full of inexperience. The good news is that the secondary returns three starters, including one of the best hitters in the league in Jay Valai. It will also help matters if Aaron Henry can return to form after an ACL injury forced him out in 2008. This isn't your typical, nasty Wisconsin defense with a pounding front seven, so the group will have to be opportunistic if the Badgers hope to finish in the upper division of the Big Ten.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Last year I wondered whether Wisconsin could replace its dynamic kicking duo. Well, it did and now the sophomores are among the best in the conference. Philip Welch converted 20 of 24 field goals and Brad Nortman had a better average than his predecessor. The cardinal and white always find a dangerous return man so this might in fact be the strength of the team.

9/19 - WOFFORD
10/3 - at Minnesota
10/10 - at Ohio State
10/17 - IOWA
10/31 - PURDUE
11/7 - at Indiana
11/14 - MICHIGAN
11/21 - at Northwestern
12/5 - at Hawaii

Key Games:
10/3 - at Minnesota, 10/10 - at Ohio State, 10/17 - IOWA

Prediction ... Unlike past Wisconsin teams, which have left me wondering as soon as the ink dried on my prediction whether I was way low on my take, I am thinking I might be a little over-generous here. The offense doesn't scare me. The defense is not what you'd expect from Madison. I'm just not sure. The OOC slate is the difference maker. It is about as easy as it gets, in my opinion. It will be another winning season in Mad-town, but will it be winning enough for the grumblings to cease?

OOC: 4-0 (Wofford?! Hawaii could be tough, but the rest are not)
B10: 3-5 (wins over Purdue, Indiana and Northwestern)
Overall: 7-5, T-7th in the conference, Insight Bowl

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